Recently, I’ve been digging into two related issues: how CIOs facilitate business change; and how organizations define what systems, organizations and other elements should be local or global.  Both of these areas involve large scale organizational change. During interviews, a few clients commented specifically on the pace of change. Netting out what they said: “You only have a short period of time for people to change, before they get locked into a new way of behaving”.

An example of this was from a colleague who helped lead an ERP dominated business transformation. One particularly interesting comment was that “Once a change was made, people adapted quickly, then dug in and wouldn’t budge”. For example, they consolidated several country-specific order entry processes into a single one for the entire company. The change was made, training was given, a certain amount of begging and threatening by senior management followed and a lot of people changed their habits dramatically over the first couple months. But then they slowed down and dug in, resulting in many functions that were never used.

So, I did some digging and found a number of academic articles on how people learn. One old one seemed very relevant.  The topic was how people’s behavior changed as a result of the deployment of a new collaboration platform.

“An average of 54% of all adaptive activity was completed in the first 2.8 months.  This given on average that new technologies took almost 14 months to be considered production.   As time goes on, momentum for change is lost, the "best" people move on to production work, evangelists lose interest and initial enthusiasm that existed for change is wasted.”

[Source: Marcie J. Tyre and Wanda J. Orlikowski, "Windows of Opportunity", MIT Sloan School of Management, September 1992]

So, I got from this that half the total change occurred in the first 3 months. After that, adaptation slowed down dramatically. I then thought through the times I’ve seen IT shops go through significant change. In each case, there was a catalyst, lots of adaptive activity then a gradual loss of momentum.

A good example comes from two years ago when a new CIO joined a company. After a couple months he reorganized by converting the 5 groups that reported to him into 11. His intent was to identify the strong players and exercise more direct control over his organization. His style was hands on with daily status meetings and constant direct management. After a few days of angst, the bulk of his people adapted quickly (though not necessarily happily). Daily reports were generated, a more top down style was accepted by his reports and work hours changed. Over time more “adaptations” were made and he saw changes to basic IT processes of project management, finance and planning. But the pace of change gradually slowed. Processes like vendor selection and requirements definition were tweaked, but remained largely the same. After 7 months, another catalyst was applied; 5 people were fired and two outsiders brought in to senior positions. This resulted in a frenzy of new activity and great change that again gradually leveled off after six months. This relative stability was maintained for almost a year and a half until the CIO left the company.

What’s the takeaway? To change people, you need a catalyst. We used to call these “burning platforms”. That much isn’t new. However, what is useful is to understand is that adaptive activity will be high for a few months, then gradually decrease. So, after the catalyst is introduced, use that time for the most important and significant changes.  People will get comfortable with the new way of doing things and make that the path of least resistance. Further change can occur, but it will be slow until another catalyst is applied.